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Ellen Burstyn (7 December 1932 -)

Ellen Burstyn

In the early 1970’s Ellen Burstyn was the late-blooming star who shone in a handful of now classic Seventies movies: The Late Picture Show (1971), The King of Marvin Gardens (1972), The Exorcist (1973), and Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974). But after this remarkable run of movies, Burstyn’s career seemed to stall, and she didn’t make another movie until Providence (1977). It was another great movie though, directed by Alain Resnais, and it seemed as if Burstyn was back on track, and she started the next decade with Resurrection (1980). But it was really at this point that Burstyn’s career began to falter, and subsequent roles/movies proved disappointing to audiences, and it seemed as if she couldn’t land those strong female roles she’d become synonymous with. But in the intervening years, Burstyn has made a number of movies that deserve closer attention. Here are five of them, all worth watching, and all displaying Burstyn’s trademark intelligence and unexpectedly soft voice, even though these are mostly supporting performances.

Playing by Heart (1998) / Character: Mildred

Playing by Heart

An ensemble cast that includes Angelina Jolie, Sean Connery and Gena Rowlands, Playing by Heart is a comedy/drama that tells several interconnected stories centred around various forms and expressions of love, and features Burstyn as a mother struggling to come to terms with the fact that her gay son (played by Jay Mohr) has AIDS. Burstyn gives a terrific performance and manages to make her character’s conflicted antipathy towards her son both disturbing and sympathetic.

Wish You Well (2013) / Character: Louisa Mae Cardinal

Wish You Well

Adapted from the novel by David Baldacci, Wish You Well sees Burstyn playing a family matriarch in 1940’s Virginia, and looking after her orphaned great-granddaughter and great-grandson. It’s a gentle, reflective movie that gives Burstyn the chance to play the usual wise old woman with attitude (when needed), but she infuses the role with a charm that you can’t help but warm to, and there’s a chemistry between Burstyn and Mackenzie Foy that helps elevate the somewhat predictable material.

How to Make an American Quilt (1995) / Character: Hyacinth (Hy) Dodd

How to Make an American Quilt

Another literary adaptation, this time from the novel by Whitney Otto, How to Make an American Quilt sees Burstyn as the older incarnation of a young woman who sleeps with her sister’s husband in a moment of emotional weakness. Facing off against an angry Anne Bancroft, Burstyn shows the pain and suffering associated with her character’s guilt, and layers her performance with an air of fragility that allows for an unexpectedly effective emotional impact.

Requiem for a Dream (2000) – Character: Sara Goldfarb

Requiem for a Dream

Darren Aronofsky’s searing drama about four Coney Island drug addicts, Requiem for a Dream earned Burstyn her sixth Academy Award nomination, and served as an impressive reminder of just how talented an actress she is. As a woman suffering from amphetamine psychosis, Burstyn is simply incredible, shunning any attempt to hold back on showing the devastating effects of her addiction, nor the terrible fate that awaits her when it spirals even further out of control.

Lovely, Still (2008) – Character: Mary Malone

Lovely, Still

A touching movie about love and longing between an elderly couple – Burstyn is joined by Martin Landau – Lovely, Still gives Burstyn the chance to play a rare romantic role, as her character begins a relationship with Landau’s reticent grocery clerk. The Xmas setting adds to the charm of the movie and Burstyn is as watchable as ever as a woman with a secret that may or may not have a lasting impact on the man she becomes involved with.